The Lost Girls: A Rehearsal for Minor Tragedies

Worry and its role in our personal stories

There were two entrances, my father says, but I remember two parks: one with my family inside, waiting for me at a picnic table, and the other, a mirror park from which my family had vanished. I was alone, and four, and scared. I made my family disappear. The mechanics of the disappearance are foggy: why did I go through the gate, and how long was my father’s back turned, and with thirty adults looking for me — we were at a family reunion when I wandered away from the playground — how did we keep missing each other?

That was the day my parents first told me, belatedly, to find a rock and hunker down when I am lost. Good advice that I ignore to this day in my headlong rush for immediate solutions. That afternoon, by trying to solve the problem on my own, to locate myself and my family, I widened the gap between us, wandering so far down the road that I had to be driven back to the picnic area by strangers, a woman in a dark sedan and her rather large pre-adolescent son. I remember the car’s cool blue interior, the woman driving slowly from one pavilion to the next, craning her neck to look out the window, the son making jokes to stop my crying — that kid would have made a great brother — and I imagine the conversation as the car’s tires crunched the gravel:

“Is that your daddy?”

Lifts self to window. Shakes head, wails.

“Is that your daddy?”

Shakes head harder, cries some more.

If the woman had wanted to kidnap a child, I wouldn’t have been a desirable prospect, covered in snot, pigtails askew, attracting attention. Whichever relative found and claimed me didn’t need to convince her; my rescuer must have been glad to see me go. My grandmother thrills to tell the story of the day my family could have lost me forever, because it reminds her of the day she was almost lost. She says that when she was a girl, “gypsies” lured her to their car with a kitten. She reached for the kitten and found herself in a tug-of-war, gripped on one side by the child snatchers and on the other by her sister, who won. To hear my grandmother tell it, such kidnappings were an ever-present danger in the ’30s.

If the woman had wanted to kidnap a child, I wouldn’t have been a desirable prospect, covered in snot, pigtails askew, attracting attention.

While I resist the scapegoating of the Roma, I don’t otherwise doubt her account — in poor, working class families during the Depression, children were often unprotected. And I understand my grandmother’s terror, her fear of strangers. How could I have been so trusting? I wonder if the woman who gave me the ride tells the inverse of the story — if she felt a chill opening her door to a strange child, fearing some kind of entrapment.

My father, whose other “rookie parent mistakes” — his words — include a scar in my eyebrow, inflicted when he leaned to pick me up with a camera hanging from his neck, and numerous black eyes and broken pairs of glasses caused by his poor aim with a softball, adopts a hangdog, slump-shouldered expression when somebody mentions the afternoon I was lost. When asked about the details of my disappearance, he can’t recall how old I was, but remembers his own age: “Old enough to know better.” And now I’ll have to convince him my entire writing career — nay, adulthood — is not built on old resentments, a veritable graveyard of my childhood. How easy it is for misunderstandings to occur, and to disappear from someone’s life forever.

My classmate Bethany, during the third grade, was the first friend to go missing: she moved to Oklahoma. I never heard from her again, despite earnest promises to keep in touch, and I naïvely spent months waiting for a postcard. I was torn between two versions of the story of her disappearance: 1) she lost my address in the shuffle of moving boxes; or 2) she was one of the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing.

When I learned about the children who died in the bombing of the Murrah Building, I made the connection to Bethany; the last I’d heard of Oklahoma was from Bethany’s mother, when she told me they were moving. In my nine-year-old brain, everything had to fit somewhere. The Bethany I knew was swallowed by Oklahoma, with those other missing children, destined for an empty chair at the memorial site. Morbid and improbable as I now believe that connection to be, as a child I watched 20/20, Unsolved Mysteries, and various true crime shows, beginning an insomniac fascination with cases of missing and exploited children. In fact, I last saw Bethany at my house for a sleepover, where we spent the night talking about Polly Klaas, who a year earlier had been kidnapped from a slumber party and strangled with her own red tights. I’ve since learned that Polly was strangled with a random piece of cloth — not her tights, which were torn from her body and recovered at multiple sites. Was this misinterpretation dramatic license on the part of the media, or further evidence of my own gruesome imagination?

Was this misinterpretation dramatic license on the part of the media, or further evidence of my own gruesome imagination?

The last night I saw Bethany, we said prayers to avoid Polly’s fate and discussed every salacious detail. We knew the dangers lying in wait, even at sleepovers, and unlike chanting “Bloody Mary” into a mirror, our game had real-world implications. Around midnight my mother was dismayed to find us in the kitchen, blinds open and staring into the dark backyard, which merged abruptly into woods. For half an hour we had been singing religious hymns and patriotic songs, which we felt to be related in sentiment.

“Bethany’s mom is coming early tomorrow. Why aren’t you in bed?”

“We can’t sleep,” I said. “Someone might be out there.” To be fair, someone might have been out there; the man who lived next door was arrested several years later for kidnapping a young couple in a drug deal gone wrong, and for a few days he was on the lam, no doubt hiding in those woods. And beyond the danger of the neighbors, my family lived in rural East Texas, where at night it became truly dark — who knew what predators were concealed beneath the pines?

My family lived in rural East Texas, where at night it became truly dark — who knew what predators were concealed beneath the pines?

“There’s no one out there,” said my mother. Her voice was full of the sense she hadn’t passed on to me.

“But in case there is,” Bethany said, blinking back tears, “these songs will soften his heart.”

I don’t remember my mom laughing or rolling her eyes — she must have known Bethany wasn’t the source of this hysteria. Over the next year, my mother would become too familiar with my routine: get worked up for no clear reason and stay up all night crying and vomiting. However, she wouldn’t believe I was scared by something as remote as the news. She blamed a fear of changing schools and the rigors of fourth grade. She didn’t know that I was poring over kidnappings and cold cases.

Years later, when I ran my Google search for Bethany — a search undertaken maybe fifteen years after her disappearance, when both I and the Internet were more mature — I felt more than morbid curiosity. She was a tragic figure, stolen away by her mother to Oklahoma, and possibly the victim of terrorism. If I had been familiar with the movie Twister, which came out a year after the bombing, I would have believed Bethany had been sucked into a tornado. She was a casualty of my childhood imagination, and I wanted to recover her. Older and wiser, I felt confident I could clear up lingering doubt and hysteria, restoring Bethany to a natural, healthy young adulthood, at least in my mind.

She was a casualty of my childhood imagination, and I wanted to recover her.

Instead, I found a disturbing blog post written by a girl of the same name. This Bethany protested charges of sexual exploitation of a minor, filed against Bethany’s father by his stepdaughter, Bethany’s stepsister. The legal case against her father seemed ambiguous; perhaps the hidden camera he’d installed was a parenting error, overstepping the bounds of stepfatherhood. Bethany believed he had good reason to monitor the girl’s activity. Had he simply been misguided in his efforts to catch her bringing boys into her bedroom? The stepsister’s allegations to a teacher at school were more troubling, harder to explain.

It must have been difficult for Bethany to reconcile her stepsister’s claims with the father she knew — the father I hoped she knew, who would never touch his daughter. Here my speculation meets its limits — guilty or innocent, the pain, the resulting familial drama, is unimaginable. Was this my childhood friend, and was this her life? The timeline and general profile fit, given that Bethany was raised by a young single mom whose husband had left for another mom, and the discovery opened for me a third possibility: that Bethany was not, at the age of nine, a reliable pen pal, because her life had been consumed with other, more important things than keeping up with old friends from elementary school. And because she was nine.

Deterred by the contents of the blog post, I never reached out to her. In stumbling across the news of her family’s troubles, I felt that I’d intruded on her life. If this was the same Bethany — and I hoped it wasn’t — what could I say? You never sent me a postcard! At first I thought you were a bombing victim, but then I read about the charges against your father. At least you’re alive. I hope those allegations weren’t true! Remember how we were afraid of men like that? My years-late intrusion would have been as bad as my nine-year-old catastrophizing, imagining for my friend an early grave.

More recent investigation suggests that maybe-Bethany has emerged safely — married with children, practical haircut. In pictures, her smile seems genuine and happy. She’s survived the men lurking in the woods, or outside the window, or just down the hall, and has chosen to bring new lives into the world. She protects these lives, and the cycle continues. We have both escaped the tragedies that have claimed, at last count, five of our classmates: kidney failure, car accidents, and a helicopter crash. As a mother, surely Bethany thinks about the dangers that are out there, for children and adults. Maybe she worries not only about predatory men, but the premature exposure to graphic news stories that runs rampant at children’s sleepovers.

My anxieties took an unusual direction and timbre — stomach in knots, burrowed under the covers, listening intently to the voice of Barbara Walters — but I don’t believe I’m alone in projecting catastrophe, naming it, and waiting for the other shoe to drop. The world is an unsafe place, not just for those who are taken, but for those who are left behind, with the infinite ability to keep losing.

The world is an unsafe place, not just for those who are taken, but for those who are left behind, with the infinite ability to keep losing.

The kidnapper took Polly, leaving her two friends tied up, huddled together under pillowcases. Brushed by tragedy at an early age, they must have imagined an alternate experience in which they weren’t the survivors, but the chosen victims, ripped tights and all. They didn’t choose to witness Polly’s abduction, to live it or survive it. Most people would refuse such knowledge, given the choice. But for some, exploitation isn’t hypothetical — for Polly, and Polly’s friends, and perhaps for my lost friend’s stepsister, the danger was real. What sickness compelled me to learn all that I could, as if living through the lost girls I never was?

In part, it was the same sickness that propelled the 24/7 news cycle, the fascination with spousicidal celebrities and the disappearance of white, middle class women and children that predominated ’90s news media and persists today. Media frequently exploit tragedy, taking their audience along for the ride in a white Bronco. And what of the silenced voices, the missing women and children whose stories the media ignores because they fall outside the frame — the wrong race, the wrong class, a homely face? But I wasn’t just looking for entertainment. I sensed that I couldn’t always be protected, safe within my nuclear family; I wanted to see the threat coming. There was comfort in knowing what was out there, in determining the worst thing that could happen to me — face on a milk carton, body in a ditch — and hoping for a better outcome.

“Let me grow up,” I prayed. “And marry the preacher’s son. And if this preacher moves, let the next preacher have a son, maybe one without visible earwax. Amen.” I was eleven, and this prayer was a staple of my requests to the divine. A couple of years older and absorbed with new concerns, my nightmares about becoming a child abduction statistic had quieted, though not disappeared. My body could be violated by sticks and stones and men with knives, but God would protect my soul. And backed by this higher power, I knew I probably would grow up, and so set about building my future, through prayer and bargaining. I also prayed that my two best friends, sitting in the church pew beside me, would not be “discovered”: I saw them as model-beautiful, sleek-haired and slender, compared to me, and dreaded the day their beauty would separate us, whisking them away to glamor and fame while I was left to pray alone. One of those friends developed scoliosis in the next year and had to wear a back brace; I found myself secretly relieved when the other one had to get braces for her teeth, like me. I hoped my friends would find preachers’ sons of their own, or even preachers, and that we’d move to the same subdivision and raise our children together.

Backed by this higher power, I knew I probably would grow up, and so set about building my future, through prayer and bargaining.

I am not that girl anymore. I’ve plucked my unibrow and left the old church behind, and far from finding a safe alternative to the career of preacher’s wife, such as, for example, teacher, lawyer, or accountant, I’ve spent a total of seven years in school trying to become a writer. My old friends are different, too: one has turned into her mother (and an accountant), and the other has been married twice, which makes her even worse, in the eyes of the church, than me — married zero times, with zero offspring, an explicable profession, and two cats. I’ve simultaneously avoided the abduction I feared and failed to achieve the life I expected. I’m living a future I couldn’t have imagined as a child, and in a sense, I have safely self-abducted, gone so far afield that no one would find the body.

I’ve simultaneously avoided the abduction I feared and failed to achieve the life I expected.

Don’t misunderstand: I don’t pine for the preachers’ sons or pity the younger self who made those requests. I don’t regret outgrowing the childish hope that made such naïve prayers possible, as comforting as blind faith can be. But I do miss those friends who have vanished from my life. In a literal sense, I can contact them any time, but the metaphorical distance is too great. Having outgrown the religion in which I was raised, I no longer fit into my old life and friendships. And in this new life, I’m still trying to locate myself, searching out signposts and establishing new landmarks. In a non-mortal, social sense, my prophecies have come true.

By looking for a boogeyman, a turbulent outside force that would be the cause of my separation from friends and family, my younger self was delaying the knowledge that people don’t usually disappear, but they change. No one knows, at any age, who they will become. Only in the context of my small town environment was the degree to which I changed even unusual. And only from my sheltered position was my fear of loss disproportionate.

By looking for a boogeyman, my younger self was delaying the knowledge that people don’t usually disappear, but they change.

We all confront mortality and impermanence eventually, and in tragic cases, sooner. Compared to those girls facing death and disappearance in actuality, children who lost or never had the illusion of safety, my improbable fears were a luxury. If I was precocious, my early exploration of extreme trauma — the hunt for those missing and exploited children — was rehearsal for the minor tragedies I knew would come: grandparents would die, friends would lose touch, my life would change. Casual, everyday trauma.

Several months ago my parents visited me and my brothers in Austin. Although my brothers live forty-five minutes away, I only see them when my parents visit; we get along fine but live separate lives, three different products of the same household. How could I have known, staring out the kitchen window with Bethany, that little brothers could disappear? That safe and sound, living thirty miles apart, we might find nothing to say to each other — harder to fathom than dark backyards, jagged pines, and kidnappers in closets. I think my mother worries about the day she and my father will be dead and gone, no longer there to provide the connective tissue between siblings. I worry too.

In one nightmare sequence of my childhood, my mother was abducted nightly through the kitchen door, carried into the backyard and murdered, off-screen, by a man I somehow knew belonged to a gang. I also knew his name. Before waking I would pick up the pair of bloody gloves and say, “Red did it” — a line adapted, I believe, from the movie Drop Dead Fred. Both movie and dream were garish. Not since those nightmares has the possibility of my parents’ deaths occupied so much space in my mind. After watching my mother bury her father last year — five years after the death of her mother — I dread the day the darkness looms larger, a shadow that moves out of imagination and into life.

I dread the day the darkness looms larger, a shadow that moves out of imagination and into life.

During my parents’ visit, we made a loop of the city park, crossing the river and attempting a return from an unexpected angle. It shouldn’t have been possible in a busy city, in the middle of the day, in the era of smart phones, but we got lost. When did this park become a forest? Were the cedars in conspiracy with the pines? The live oaks looked thick, ideal for secreting a body. I could see the headline: “Family of Five Mysteriously Disappears.” If you have any information on this case, write to us at Unsolved Mysteries.

Rather than turn and retrace our steps, we charged ahead, brothers serving as scouts, me walking alone at a thoughtless pace, while my father stayed back with my mother and her creaking knees. My family members’ isolated experiences of being lost formed a dark premonition on a sunny day, a gesture toward my fears about the family’s dissolution.

But if we just kept moving forward, we’d find a way across the river. And turning around would be a defeat. After an hour, my mother announced her intention to find a rock and hunker down.

“Come back with the car once you work it out,” she said, digging in her heels.

But this solution was unsatisfactory. If we left my mother on a rock, would we ever find her? And without her, the family unit would crumble.

“Let’s just cross at the pool,” I said. “The bridge isn’t too far back. And we’re not swimming. They’ll let us through.”

“We’ll have to pay,” said one of my brothers, usually a spendthrift. I shook my head at him — an aspiring engineer but afraid to think outside the box.

“Try it and let us know how it goes.” This from my father, who has finally mellowed after years of stress and Blue Bell ice cream. Now the whole family was hanging back, sitting on separate rocks while I went to talk to the booth attendant.

“All clear,” I said a few minutes later. We walked past the booth on tiptoe, as if getting away with something, crossing the bridge without paying. I rolled my eyes at my own furtive apprehension — there were no trolls under this bridge, or men crouching in the bushes. Our family’s values made it hard to ask for an exception to the rule. You paid for your mistakes. But I had found a shortcut, bringing us all back to the other side.

Our family’s values made it hard to ask for an exception to the rule. You paid for your mistakes.

“You would have been a good lawyer,” my mother said, picking her way through the groups of sunbathers.

I was too tired to argue. All I wanted was to get back to the car, to the GPS that would take us safely back to our four separate homes. Later that night, reverting to my old pattern, I would pray for my parents’ safe travels. We had been lucky so far. But the truth is, none of us are safe. We are all one late-night phone call from catastrophe — even the fortunate ones, born into lives of relative safety. I could die in my car, driving like a maniac, or have a brain aneurysm, swift and sudden and non-negotiable. I could have an aneurysm while driving, killing myself and others. Or worse, my parents could die in a crash, leaving me the sole survivor, and then I truly would be a lost girl, an orphan. But it’s impossible to live daily with the knowledge of impending doom; we all need our safeguards against hysteria. I prayed my parents safely home. I hoped our luck would hold.

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